How to Respond to Hurtful People

A month or so ago, a good friend asked me to write a post on this topic. She told me that she thought I’d have some helpful things to say. I will admit that when she told me this, I thought she was a little crazy. What can I actually speak about that would be helpful to others? My gut instinct, when I feel hurt, is to lean more towards the “flight” side of “fight or flight”. I tend to withdraw and internalize my hurt.

This is absolutely an area of my own life where I need to have compassion on myself for not having the tools to protect myself, while also doing the hard work of achieving these important life skills.

So, I decided to sit on this particular project for awhile and think about it. Hopefully, I can pretend to have some form of wisdom on the matter that will be of use to some of my readers.

Okay. Here we go.

The Hurtful People

Most of us have a certain inclination when we feel someone else has hurt us or wronged us in some way. Usually that inclination comes in the form of either withdrawing or running from the person who hurt us in order to avoid confrontation, or lashing out and hurting that person back.

Neither of these responses are particularly helpful, especially if we need/desire to have an ongoing relationship with that person. Perhaps it’s a boss or coworker. Perhaps it’s a friend or a family member. Regardless, we all need to learn, at some point in our lives, healthy tools and skills for addressing and confronting the hurt.

I want to look at a few situations that we all may experience at some point in our lives.

The Passive Aggressive

Have you ever experienced passive aggressive attacks from someone? Perhaps a parent has made comments to you about being too old to get married or have kids, but isn’t it wonderful that you have so much free time?

Perhaps a friend has made a comment to you about you not having the greatest fashion sense, but that’s okay because not everyone has good taste.

Perhaps this is a person who always has an insult saved up for you, but they’re kidding, so it’s okay.

These are comments that, on the surface seem innocent enough and are perhaps even presented as jokes, but the core message to you is a deeply hurtful and/or insulting one. That’s not a mistake. They intend to send a message, but they do not want to be too direct or confrontational. The end result is that you get blamed for any hurt you feel (“Lighten up – it’s just a joke!”).

The Taker

Do you have a family member or friend who always, and only, runs to you when they need you to invest in their lives? This would be someone who constantly steals from your internal resources. They need your affirmation. They need your support. They need your advice. They need your company. They may find themselves in a crisis situation every other day and need you to bail them out. They need everything you have to offer, but they never give anything back.

They don’t care what’s happening in your life. They don’t make room in the relationship for you to have needs of your own. They don’t invest in you. In the end you feel drained and hurt because you are not valued by someone to whom you’ve given so much.

The Gossip

I think we’ve all experienced a situation in which we’ve heard things about ourselves through the grapevine. We discover that someone we thought that we could trust has been talking about us behind our backs. Maybe they’ve spilled a secret told to them in confidence. Maybe they’re telling outright lies designed to hurt us in some way.

The Innocent

And, of course, there is the unintentional hurt we may have experienced in the course of our relationships with others. Try as we might, if we have a real relationship with another imperfect person, we will experience hurt.

A careless or thoughtless remark dropped at the wrong moment can wound deeply. Maybe someone did or said something without realizing how it came across to you. Maybe you got caught up in a heated argument where hurtful words, that neither side truly meant, were exchanged.

One does not have to be an inherently malicious person in order to cause hurt to those around them.

Our Response

This isn’t, of course, an exhaustive list of all of the ways in which we might be hurt by others. But it’s pretty safe to say that these are situations that most, if not all of us, have experienced in our lives. So how should we respond?

First, find out which category this person fits. Are they Passive Aggressive? Are they a Taker? Are they a constant/repeat offender? Or are they an Innocent?

If the person is generally a good and safe person in your life, you may want to take some time away from the relationship to heal from the incident, or to calm yourself. Feelings that are too big or too strong can all too easily interfere with otherwise constructive conversations. Its okay and even healthy to create space for yourself when you need it.

When you’re ready to discuss the issue, go to that person. Tell them how they hurt you. Tell them why it was hurtful. Emphasize how much you value their presence in your life, and that you want to continue to have a relationship with them. They need to know you’re not trying to hurt them back or tear them down by bringing this up, so choose your words carefully.

Again, if your emotions are getting the best of you and causing you to behave in ways that are harmful to that conversation and the relationship – make time and space for yourself to become calm. It’s okay to walk away from a conversation if you need to. Give yourself permission for this if you need it.

Don’t fear the conflict. It can be extremely uncomfortable to confront issues with people. However, someone who truly appreciates their relationship with you will want to be aware of problems that they have unintentionally created in order to have the chance to make things right.

If, on the other hand, the offender is not an Innocent that you’re dealing with, you need a different approach. If you’re able to pinpoint patterns of abuse within the relationship, behavior that consistently leaves you on the losing side, it’s time to start protecting yourself from further pain and learn how to set boundaries.

This is where it’s helpful to have a support system in place. You’ll want people in your corner who can support your decision to enforce protective boundaries in your life. You will want people who can encourage you when you are struggling, and people who can hold you accountable when you want to cave. Enforcing boundaries is not easy, especially if you have been trained to please the people around you (a serious problem for many who were raised in authoritarian communities – especially for women). Make sure you have people in your corner.

If you find yourself in a situation where you are isolated and finding that support in your life is proving to be a challenge, that’s okay! Find yourself a good therapist who can support you and help you develop the skills you need to make healthier choices for your personal relationships. There is no shame in seeking out this kind of support.

Give yourself a script to follow in order to help you stay on track. Repeat offenders are predictable, which makes the script easy to follow.

For the Passive Aggressive, all you have to do is say “your comments are very hurtful, and I’m not okay with you speaking to me like that. If you continue, I have to end this conversation.”

Be sure to follow through. If the insults keep coming, you need to say, “I’m done with this discussion. Goodbye.” And walk away.

For The Taker who needs you to lend them a couple hundred so they can make rent: “Gosh, that sounds like a hard and frustrating situation. But I cannot help you.”

You can empathize with them. You can acknowledge that they are experiencing something that is hard. But you are not under obligation to help them. You do not owe them anything. You do not have to explain, and you certainly don’t need to apologize for keeping your own money for your own needs and wants. Reword the script as you need to in order to address whatever other resources they’re attempting to take from you.

Be aware that denying The Taker whatever it is that they’re seeking will result in a backlash. They will be angry, and that’s okay. Their anger is not your problem. They need to figure out for themselves how to feel their feelings and address them in healthy ways. You do not have to fix the situation or put yourself in the path of destruction to be hurt.

If you need to, you can simply walk away from them by saying, “I can see that you’re angry, and I understand. However, I will not allow you to hurt me with that anger. I’m leaving now, and we can talk when you’ve calmed down.” Then simply end the conversation and leave.

They may continue lashing out at you or attempt to manipulate you into submission in order to continue their taking schemes, but for you the conversation is over. Do not continue to engage.

The Passive Aggressive or The Gossip may also respond with anger or hurt when called on for their behavior towards you. They may attempt to spin the situation to put the entire responsibility of the problem that they created back on you. This is a manipulation tactic. You do not have to continue the conversation.

Remember your goals in the conversation. And remember your scripts.

You may find yourself slipping into a hierarchical mindset that puts the repeat offender in a higher social/power position than you. They may not have any actual power over you, but the way in which you relate to this person may have a submissive element. They may be a friend, a parent, a boss, or a romantic partner, etc… Who you truly want to make happy and to whom you naturally submit towards that end.

Make a conscious effort to reframe the relationship in your mind. You are an equal in the relationship. Your thoughts, feelings, and needs are just as important as theirs. You have the right to feel safe, happy, and fulfilled in each of your relationships.

If someone in your life is not providing these things, and refuses to do so even after boundaries have been set and discussions have been had, it’s likely time to find a way to end the relationship.

This is when you, again, want to ensure that you have a support system in place. Ending a relationship, any kind of relationship, is a hard and emotionally devastating event. You will hurt and you will grieve. You need to have people in your life who support you through this time.

Finally, be aware that you will feel many emotions. Some will even conflict with others. You will feel hurt. You might feel anger or sadness. You might feel relief for standing up for yourself. You might feel shame for not doing it sooner.

You may even feel sympathy for the person who has hurt you. You may feel the responsibility to be the one who makes the peace and brings reconciliation to the relationship. It’s absolutely okay and valid to feel all of the feelings that you feel.

But remember the point of your boundaries: You are protecting against further hurt in your life. When someone has hurt you, especially if there is a pattern of hurtful behavior, it is never your responsibility to fix the relationship. They are the one who needs to sincerely apologize and do the work it takes to earn your trust back – and that’s only if you choose to be open to relationship. If you do not trust someone to be a safe person for you, you do not owe them a damn thing.

Love yourself enough to make yourself a priority. Love yourself enough to enforce boundaries so that you can have a mentally and emotionally safe world to live in.

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